by Justin Miera


"In the conclusion of Goethe's Faust, the choir rejoiced in the eternal femininity that draws us to the heights. In recent times, through the mouth of Folkelt, child psychology has rejoiced in the "primitive unity that distinguishes the normal mental life of the child, that constitutes the essence and value of the eternal child." Folkelt expressed here not his own thought but the fundamental aspiration of the whole of modern child psychology, that is, the wish to reveal the eternal child. The task of psychology, however, is not the discovery of the eternal child. The task of psychology is the discovery of the historical child, of what Goethe called the transitory child. The stone that the builders have disdained must become the foundation stone (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 91)."

Lev Semonovich Vygotsky was a great thinker from both the perspective of an expansive world view, and the minutia of logical detail. Therefore, to decipher his thoughts and intentions requires one to think equally broad. Not that we need to think from only these two separate perspectives, but that our visions must include all potential vistas. His work also insists that we look at the interconnection between these points of view; one idea is not isolated to itself, but is derived from, and dependent on other ideas. This is the essence of Vygotsky's critique of Jean Piaget.

He sees Piaget's work, and that of other "modern" psychologists like Folkelt, as isolating the diverse aspects of child psychology for the purpose of creating a grand overarching theory that can define the "eternal" child. Unfortunately, Piaget's laws can only be applied to the small sample that he studied (originally two children in affluent Geneva), not universally or historically. Vygotsky is critical of this perspective because it does not take into account the unique "historical" nature of each individual child's psychology, nor the eternal truths of nature (1987, p. 89). Vygotsky insists that a child's interaction with her surroundings, with family, society and culture, is the "foundation stone" upon which her individual psychology is built.

Vygotsky wrote several papers describing his disagreements with modern psychologists, and illustrating his own beliefs. In his paper called "The Problem of Speech and Thinking in Piaget's Theory" Vygotsky picks apart Piaget's methodologies and theories. These critiques touch on both the subjects at hand, and the broader philosophies of modern psychology. This paper, along with six others, were first published posthumously in 1934, the year of Vygotsky's death. They were first translated into English in 1962 under the title "Thought and Language," and are the same as the 1987 publication titled "Thinking and Speech."

Vygotsky, as any researcher or theorist, does tend to find data, information and passages that support his hypothesis. In his analysis of Piaget, Vygotsky quotes his subject selectively. The quotes are not distorted, but also not defended. In the following sections, Piaget's position is taken entirely from Vygotsky's argument. The conclusion of this paper will include other perspectives of Piaget's position.

Thinking and Speech

Vygotsky's divergence from Piaget can be generalized as a process of progression verses bifurcated isolation. Vygotsky believed that through a child's experiences she will find a place in society and begin to make connections between previously disparate ideas. He saw this as a process that builds new ideas on the information and relationships already existent in the child's life. The broader the experiences the greater the potential for developing fresh concepts. New phenominological revelations emerge from one's past encounters (1987, p.89). Speech is seen as an important part of this thinking process. It is through communication with others that a child will absorb, process and reapply new and borrowed ideas (1987, p.72).

In contrast, Piaget saw development as having "a logic of arbitrary circumstance (1987, p. 89)" and not connected to the child's practical activity. He saw psychological development as stemming from a biological system. Throughout a child's life one stage of psychological development is replaced by another. This supplanting does not have a relationship to previous events, but rather is programed into us. For example, at the age of 7-8 a child's egocentrism is replaced by socialization. There is no progressive development, no lingering influence, simply the next stage.

Piaget's Perspective

It is this transitional phase at age 7 that Vygotsky uses to illustrate his difficulties with Piaget's theories. Piaget's two diametric stages are described as preoperational, from age 2-7, and concrete operational, from age 7-12 (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, p.46). These stages are thought of by Piaget as two separate realities and two separate ways of thinking. Piaget is more concerned with the thinking, as opposed to the speech aspects of these stages. Speech is considered a tool of thought, or a vehicle used to measure one's thoughts.

During the preoperational stage Piaget describes children as undirected thinkers, or what Bleuler would call autistic thinkers. Autistic thought is subconscious and imaginative. It is concerned with satisfying one's desires. This dream world of imagination is individual and cannot be communicated with by language, but rather through images and symbols (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 57). Piaget even states that children have no verbal thought. When children play together there is no communication other than that of gestures and mimicry (1987, p. 88). Any form of contact is simply used to satisfy the individual's desires. This relates to Freud's pleasure principle which describes autistic thought as warping reality to fulfill one's hunger. Children are said to be unmovable in their desire, that they will not adapt. It is only the older child that can adapt her desire to an objective reality (1987, p. 77).

The concrete operational stage is characterized by rational thought. Rational, or directed thought is:

"...conscious, ie., it pursues an aim which is present to the mind of the thinker; it is intelligent, which means that it is adapted to reality and tries to influence it; it admits of being true or false (empirically or logically true) and it can be communicated by language (1987, p. 57)."

Between these two forms of thought, these two stages of development, is what Piaget calls egocentric thought. Egocentric thought is a transitional phase, but abides strictly in the individualistic realm. It is absolute in its influence until the occurrence of socialized, or rational thought. Egocentrism has no sense of consequences and is therefore asocial. Piaget believed that syncretism permeated all of the young child's thoughts: a divergence of ideas with no interconnection (1987, p. 60). Egocentrism is further described as separate and isolated from the child's experience. The fault never lies with the child, but with someone, or something else. Educational or social influences are simply assimilated and deformed by the child back to their original egocentric essence (1987, p. 61).

This egocentric stage is marked by egocentric speech. Piaget describes egocentric speech as a "child's verbal dream" and insists that it has no significance to any activity or communication (1987, p. 69). He also calls it egocentric because "the child speaks only about himself but chiefly because he does not attempt to place himself at the point of view of his hearer (1987, p. 66)." Piaget's research measured the egocentric speech of children and calculated it to be 44-47% of speech, by age six and a half (1987, p. 67). The other half of the child's speech is classified as socialized, but Piaget insists that these other requests, orders or questions are generated solely for the purpose of furthering the egocentric agenda (1987, p.67). Ultimately, the fate of egocentric speech is to atrophy in the shadows of rational thought and socialized speech (1987, p. 71).

The movement from egocentric to rational thought, from preoperational to concrete operational, is completed by compulsion and pressure. Piaget believed that societal constraints on the young child eventually collapse her autistic/egocentric paradigm. Furthermore, egocentrism and cooperation are only brought together through the external force of society. These two separate realities do not evolve or intermingle, in fact, Piaget describes the movement to rational thought in separated terms:

The upper plane [rational thought], on the contrary, is built up little by little by the social environment, which presses more and more upon the child as time goes on. It is the plane of objectivity, speech, and logical ideas, in a word the plane of reality. As soon as one overloads it, it bends, creaks and collapses, and the elements of which it is composed fall on the lower plane, and become mixed up with those that properly belong there...each of these planes has a logic of its own which protests loudly at being coupled with that of the other (1987, p. 83).

The child and her environment are separate. The child is an isolated egocentric component being influenced and assimilated by society. Children have no impact on society, and until this dramatic, genetically predetermined point society has had no impact on them.

Vygotsky's View

Vygotsky has great difficulty with this bifurcated perspective because he sees a progressive link between the stages of psychological development, and a contrary hypothesis to their order. The order he sees is a progression from societal interactions to internal thought. This movement is a gradual process that builds upon the experiences and thoughts of its preceding stages.

Vygotsky saw that the earliest interactions and experiences of a child are social. These social interactions are (a) immediate, the child's interaction at a moment, (b) structural, the social structures of family and school, and (c) general, societal features such as language and number systems (Bodrova, 1996, p. 9). He also believed that those interactions were accompanied by communication, if not initiated by the child, at least engaged in by her. For instance, if the child grabs at an object then an attentive adult may move the object closer. There is meaning here for the adult, and thereby communication. Eventually, the child learns that this could be a gesture for others and thereby exploits this gesture as a social signal (Subbotsky, 1999).

This speech, or communication, affects all those in the immediate area and can be initiated by an adult or child. By its very nature, speech is social and not merely a byproduct of psychological development. The initial stage of speech is pure social interaction, but gives way to a differentiation: communicative and egocentric speech. Both of these are equally social, but have different functions. Communicative speech is as it sounds, for the purpose of concrete communication with others. Egocentric speech is actually a process by which the child moves from external social communication towards internal reflective thinking. The two coexist, and impact each other as the child develops.

This is the essence of Vygotsky's beliefs. We move from the external to the internal world. We begin as social creatures, learn through interaction with others, and gradually come to terms with how our individual selves function and relate to external society (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 74-5). He places autistic thinking not at the beginning of development, like Piaget, but rather at the end with logical and internal thought. The fantasy and imagination of autistic thought are now squarely in the conscious realm (1987, p. 64).

Reality, the concrete interactions and consequences of the external society, are constantly impacting the child's mind. Therefore, adaptation is directed by both one's needs, the ego, and their impact on, and implications with, the outside world (1987, p. 77). Both of these are unified, operating with give and take to reach a decision of action. As the child develops, she more frequently internally reflects on the consequences of her actions, the role she plays in social drama. This is demonstrated by the waning of egocentric speech in favor of inner speech. The younger child will describe, out loud, her drawing process: "The windows are blue and the house is green." As she grows, the child no longer needs this external reinforcement to achieve her goals. She internalizes the process and simply draws the vision of her imagination.

Vygotsky also believes that this process of internalization is not just a result of genetic function, or even social compulsion. He sees the child as bringing her own perspective to this psychological development. Piaget believed that illogical autistic thought created a syncretic block in the child's mind. The child could not make logical connections or predict causes and effect. If we ask why the sun does not fall from the sky there is no way to resolve their confusion because the child has no personal relationship with the sun and its activity.

"However, if we ask the child about things that are accessible to his experience (the specific content of this class of things being determined of course by the education and upbringing of the particular child), we will probably not receive a syncretic answer (1987, p. 89)."

Vygotsky goes on to taught syncretism as a tool for connecting disparate ideas, as in developing a hypothesis. If we help the child build a bridge between a reality they currently know and a new, unexplored idea, then they will become a "remarkable instrument for investigation (1987, p. 89)." On the other hand Piaget calls child truth "hinc et nunc (1987, p. 90)," here and now, related to only a specific small environment. If the child can not make the automatic leap beyond syncretism, regardless of her background, then she lacks logical realistic thought.


Vygotsky refers to Edouard Claparède, who appointed Piaget to his post at the Rousseau Institute of Geneva (Jean Piaget Society, 1999), for clarification on conscious reflection. The first law of reflection "states that difficulties or impediments encountered in automation activity lead to conscious reflection on that activity (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 70). The second law declares that the appearance of speech is a marker for the onset of conscious reflection. Both of these laws back Vygotsky's assertions on the cognitive, and social development of children.

It is the process of experiencing life and people, in a variety of circumstances and contexts, that help bring us to a state of consciousness. It is not merely genetic biological programing that brings us there. Because each of our experiences in life will be different then the timing and path we take to get to consciousness will also be different. With that, value can not be placed on one experience over another. Like wise different forms of communication, or speech should not be valued against a person's consciousness. There can be observable, quantifiable differences in the speech we use, but the act of communication itself signifies thought.

It is thought and speech combined that inspires Vygotsky. Not just the cognitive ideas and words that relate to centration or conservation, but more importantly the thoughts and communications that connect us all to each other. It is the social interactions of life that ultimately hold the most significance, not theories, test scores, money or prestige. If we can not find happiness and relevance in our ongoing personal interactions then it is difficult to apply ourselves to academic considerations. If a child is hungry, or her father just abandoned the family, these conditions may play a bigger role in her cognitive ability to overcome irreversibility than her chronological age.

In defense of Piaget, he does not totally disregard the impact of society and culture on the development of children. In fact, he often places the two perspectives, biological and social, on an equal footing. Here are two passages from Piaget's 1932 book The moral judgment of the child, and his 1970 book Structuralism:

There are no more such things as societies qua beings than there are isolated individuals. There are only relations .... and the combinations formed by them, always incomplete, cannot be taken as permanent substances.

"... there is no longer any need to choose between the primacy of the social or that of the intellect: collective intellect is the social equilibrium resulting from the interplay of the operations that enter into all cooperation (Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. V., 1999)."

Still, Piaget's acknowledgement of social exchanges tends to play a stronger role in older children. He sees the social context as developing logical and systemic concepts which can not come into existence until after the age of seven (Mole, L. C., 1990, p. 253).

Vygotsky's classification of Piaget's theories as cognitive biology seems to be more of a tool to draw a clear distinction for the intentions of those who work with children. As we have seen in educational psychology since Piaget's initial presumptions, and since the passing of Vygotsky, most psychologists and educators are consumed by the classification and analysis of children as a whole. As a result, we in society have neglected the perspective of the individual circumstances that bring children into our lives. We have placed the importance of test scores and psychological profiles above the humanitarian growth of our children. It is now more important to keep every given class of fourth grade students at the same reading level than it is to help them to become life long lovers of reading. It is more important to gauge 8th grade math score rankings with other schools than it is to provide relevant circumstances of application, or peer contextual reasoning. In this light it is fair and appropriate to draw clear distinctions between these two perspectives. Without a concerted effort to broaden the cultural experiences of our young children we face generations of adults without humanitarian perspectives. To diminish the eternal soul of a child, simply for expedient classification, is to shrink the depth of our collective kind. Because are primarily social learners it is through culture that we must primarily teach.

"We can formulate the genetic law of cultural development in the following way: any function in the child's cultural development appears on stage twice, on two planes. First it appears on the social plane, then on the psychological, first among people as an interpsychical category and then within the child as an intrapsychical category (Vygotsky, 1999)."


Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (1996). Tools of the mind. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Simon & Schuster.

Cole, M. & Wetrsch, H. V. (1999). Beyond the Individual-Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget-Vygotsky. [Online]. Available: http://www.geocities.com/~nschmolze/colewertsch.html [1999, November 7].

Eggen, P. D. & Kauchak, D. (1992). Educational Psychology. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

IBE (1999). International comparative education information and documentation centre. In United Nations Edcution, Scientific and Cultural Organization [Online]. Available: http://www.unesco.org/education/educprog/50y/brochure/unintwo/56.htm [1999, November 6].

Jean Piaget Society (1999). A short biography of Jean Piaget. In The Jean Piaget Society [Online]. Available: http://www.piaget.org/biography/biog.html [1999, November 7].

Mole, Luis, C., Ed. (1990). Vygotsky and education. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Subbotsky, Eugene (1999). Vygotsky's Distinction Between Lower and Higher Mental Functions and Recent Studies on Infant Cognitive Development. In Psychology Department, University of Lancaster, Lancaster LA1 4YF, UK [Online]. Available: http://geocities.com/Athens/9148/subbot.html [1999, November 5].

Vygotsky, Lev Semonovich (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Volume 1, problems of general psychology (R. W. Rieber and A. S. Carton, Eds.). New York: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, Lev Semonovich (1999). A tribute to Vygotsky. [Online]. Available: http://geocities.com/Athens/9148/vygotsky.html [1999, November 8].

A paper in partial fulfillment of the course Theories of Human Development and Learning MLS 654 G, Course Consultant is Natalie Eilam, REGIS UNIVERSITY, November 11, 1999

Justin's Regis Papers Page